by Barbara Walker
For all of us, life is full of choices. A frequent choice those of us who are blind face is whether to accept more help than we really need (thus furthering misconceptions which exist about us) or to refuse such help and risk creating a scene or causing embarrassment to a valued colleague. Here Barbara Walker describes just such a situation.
It is often hard to know where to draw the line between acceptance of what is and the necessity to take a stand for change. And for me, mostly this struggle has been played out in little things. One such instance involved my singing a solo in church. For quite some time, the choir director at my church had been asking me to sing a solo. She said people had approached her wanting me to do that, and wanting her to encourage me, since they knew I wouldn't be likely to request the privilege when opportunities were given to do so. I had finally agreed to invite my sister to come and sing a duet with me, but it became obvious that our church schedules were such that it might be a long time before that would be workable. The director's next request was that I choose something to sing and perhaps a member of the choir to sing with, and ask an accompanist for assistance in that area if I preferred not to play my guitar.
All of those seemed like "piece of cake" kinds of things to her, I'm sure. But for me, a person whose ministry through music is not an assertive one, those suggestions sounded unthinkable. Assuming I had the nerve to approach another choir member to sing with me (which I didn't), how would the person respond?
Also, I learn music by hearing it and memorizing it. I don't do solos, and don't have a storehouse of options to present to a potential accompanist. As I stood before the director in the presence of a friend with whom I ride to choir, I felt the familiar longing to be assertive struggling with the urge to run to some place where I could be inconspicuous.
The visible result of that struggle was a period of silence followed by an explanation to her of the situation as I saw it. I wanted so much to be able to thank her for her suggestions and follow them through. But the mere thought of doing that constricted my throat, weakened my knees, and sent my tongue between my teeth to stifle their chattering. Ultimately, I reminded her that I was not a soloist requesting an opportunity to perform, but a servant shyly preparing to answer a call to minister. The potential duet discussed that night also fell through due to scheduling difficulties.
Shortly after that, I received a call from the director asking if I would sing a short portion of an upcoming anthem as a solo. Knowing that although it was a familiar hymn tune the lyrics were different, I said I would be glad to do that, but would need someone to read the words to me before we practiced it. I said I would bring my Braille `n Speak for that purpose. During practice, when it came time to work on that anthem she announced that I would be singing the first verse. She had all of the women sing it through one time, and I entered the words into my Braille 'n Speak as they sang. There was one part I didn't understand, so I asked for clarification of it before singing it myself as she had requested. Her response both surprised and humiliated me. "Oh, just sing the words you know, or sing la la la. They'll love whatever you do, and no one will know if you're singing what's written or not.
There it was again■the old "anything you do will be wonderful, honey" routine. Suddenly the most surprising thing to me was why I still, after all these years, find it catching me off guard. I sat for a moment in the silence of belittlement, thinking thoughts of the obvious: "She would know. The choir would know. God would know." And as the silence seemed to be melting into the rustling of papers and shifting of weight on chairs, I heard my voice from somewhere saying, "I would know."
With the barely audible prompting of a fellow choir member who has often responded to my real requests for her assistance rather than her imaginings of what I might need, I rather feebly sang my renewed commitment to love and serve Jesus. Before leaving that night, the director, the accompanist and I agreed to meet in the sanctuary on Sunday morning prior to the service to practice with the microphone.
When I arrived in the sanctuary on Sunday, the director was talking to the sound control person. She announced to me that he would place a microphone on a stand and someone would assist me to it and stand by me while I sang. I felt again the grip of incredulity. For years, I had been processing and recessing with the choir, not to mention coming in and out of the choir loft and chancel area for various other purposes.
Struggling to keep my composure, I found myself asking the kind, bubbly, victim of society's insistence that I be cared for-this choir director whose spirit and freedom to be uninhibited I receive as gifts to cherish■questions which sounded harsh and unrelenting.
"Do you think of me as an adult? Why is it necessary that I use the microphone differently from how others have used it? What is it that causes people to cast reality and experience to the wind and insist that everything be different when working with a blind person?" At once, her breezy confidence turned into wind-swept confusion. We were swirling toward a trap of absurdity-she wanting to protect me, I wanting to educate her, both wanting to serve Jesus.
As each of us shared our concern with the other, we came to terms with the situation. Since only the women were singing that day, I agreed to sit in the front rather than in my usual place in the second row. The standing microphone would be in front of me. Pride wanted me to insist that I sit in my usual row and walk down to the microphone. Knowledge said others who prefer not to be conspicuous have sat by the microphone or had it passed to them where they're seated. Reason suggested I accept the plan. Wisdom concurred, reminding me I was there to minister, not to win a contest of wills.
At home after the service, I discussed the situation with my children. They were both glad I hadn't allowed the original scenario to prevail. John, my eight-year-old, said it wouldn't have been right. Marsha, my ten-year-old, elaborated. "I would have been embarrassed," she said, "not because anyone should be ashamed to get help if it's needed, but because you wouldn't need that help and you and we would know it." She felt that for me to accept that option would be to deny progress.
I recalled the fierce independence of their deceased father, who had treated his blindness as a characteristic which, although causing some inconvenience, would not have its existence used as a basis for buying into society's notion that it should debilitate him. I also thought of the tens of thousands of us in the National Federation of the Blind who daily deal with struggles such as this one. I hoped we had all taken a small step forward. Since that day, I have sung two additional short solos. One was at a Sunday evening service, at which I walked to the microphone from a place in the congregation and returned to my seat during the remainder of the song. The other occasion was during a regular service, and the choir director previously mentioned was again in charge. This time, I stayed in my usual place and was handed the mike just prior to my solo. There was no discussion, no confusion, no trouble at all.
The message I sang that day was: "God of many names, gathered into one, in your glory come and meet us, moving, endlessly becoming." And as it happened within me and within the Trinity Church choir director, it happened for all of us. We are all "moving, endlessly becoming," and that is a marvelous source of hope.